DAMASCUS, Dec. 12 -- A Syrian parliamentarian who broke ground by taking part in an Israeli TV debate said Tuesday that another participant, the Israeli opposition leader, gave him a peace message for the Syrian president. Recalling Monday night's TV debate, Shakib Abu Jabal said he had assured the Leader of the Opposition, Binjamin Netanyahu, that Syrian President Hafez Assad wants 'a just and comprehensive peace.' 'Netanyahu asked me to relay a message of peace from the Israeli government and opposition to President Assad,' Abu Jabal said in an interview in Damascus. In Jerusalem, news reports quoted Netanyahu, who has previously called Assad a dictator, as saying: 'I will be happy to continue the negotiations that we began in Madrid.' Netanyahu was referring to the Middle East peace conference in the Spanish capital in 1991 where he represented Israel as deputy foreign minister. 'Peace is vital to Syria no less than to Israel. All of us here want peace,' Netanyahu said on the 'Popolitica' show. A foreign correspondent in Jerusalem said that a live interview with a Syrian politician was a first for Israeli television, but that as a news story in Tuesday's papers it was overshadowed by the Israeli military's withdrawal from the West Bank city of Nablus and Prime Minister Shimon Peres' summit in Washington. As there are no direct communications links between Syria and Israel, the state-owned TV channel set up the interview via telephone lines to a third country. Israelis did not see Abu Jabal, but they heard him speaking in Arabic.
Jabal said he insisted that the translation into Hebrew be done by his son, who lives in Majdal Shaams on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Accordingly, the son was brought into the program via a conference link-up. Abu Jabal denied he had asked Syrian authorities for permission to take part. 'I asked no one,' he said, 'we have freedom and democracy.' The parliamentarian said he spent 12 years in Israeli jail after Israel captured the Golan Heights in the 1967 war. He was released in a prisoner exchange, and was elected to the Syrian parliament in 1986. The interview came as U.S. President Bill Clinton tried to revive negotiations between Syria and Israel. Peace talks have foundered over Syria's insistence on a complete withdrawal from the Golan, and Israel's demand for some measure of demilitarization and early warning system to be installed on the Heights. The only previous television contact between the two countries was in June when the Syrian foreign minister, Farouk al-Sharaa, agreed to be interviewed by Israeli TV while on a visit to Washington.